Reflections of the Second Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership
The second of the Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership, the first of which took place in Baghdad on August 2021, was held in Jordan on December 20, under the leadership of France. The Conference was the first major international meeting of Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, who became Iraqi prime minister on October 27, after more than a year of uncertainty and political stalemate. Apart from the host country of the Conference, representatives of Iraq, Türkiye, France, Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, and Iran, as well as the representatives of the United Nations (UN), Arab League, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and European Union (EU) attended the Conference. While heads of state and prime ministers represented Jordan, France, Iraq, and Egypt in the meeting, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, and Iran were represented by their foreign ministers. Kuwait and Türkiye, on the other hand, preferred to be represented by ambassadors. President of the Republic of Türkiye Recep Tayyip Erdoğan did not join the Conference. Likewise, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu was not present in this meeting. Thus, the low-level participation of Türkiye drew attention, and it was a critical shortcoming of the meeting.
The Reason Behind France's Interest in Iraq
Surrounding China lies at the heart of France's interest in the Middle East. Since 2010, France has seen China as its biggest competitor in Africa, which has a strategic significance for France. The following statement of French President Emmanuel Macron during his 2019 trip to Djibouti represents a clear indication of this situation: “China's growing interest in Africa is a threat in the medium and long term. I would not want a new generation of international investments to encroach on our historical partners’ sovereignty or weaken their economies.” That is why France has been adopting some strategies to prevent the increasing Chinese influence in its sphere of influence. The primary one among these is the institutional framework France established in 2014 to coordinate regional cooperation between five West African countries under the name G5 Sahel (G5S). One of the concrete achievements of the G5 Sahel is the creation of the “Joint Task Force”, a joint initiative to combat terrorism and human trafficking. Another major contribution of the G5 Sahel is the “Priority Investment Programme”, which was created in 2014. Thanks to these developments, relevant countries have received billions of dollars of grants and donations from European countries, the USA, and other foreign countries.
France considers the G5 Sahel model to be applicable in the Middle East as well. It believes that by doing so, it can block China, which focuses on the Middle East, and consequently, it can limit China's presence in Africa. At this point, the pivot state of a G5 Sahel-like model for France is Iraq in the Middle East. Iraq, which has one of the largest oil reserves in the world, will continue to maintain its geostrategic importance for the global economy. Furthermore, its geographical location means that it is a very critical transport link between the European and Asian markets, which is quite crucial for China. Macron visited Iraq twice in one year between 2020-2021. He is expected to make his third visit in the first weeks of 2023. Macron's first visit was right after his trip to Lebanon on September 3, 2020, whereas his second trip took place on August 27, 2021, to attend the Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership. While the fact that France is the only European country attending the summit is remarkable, it is also an important indicator of France’s interest in the Middle East.
Iran Was the Focal Point of the Baghdad Conference
According to France, which pioneered the formation of the Conference, Iran is another country that has strategic importance in the context of its Iraq strategy. Leaving aside the recent ruptures, the rapprochement between Iran and China is getting deeper, and it has been directly reflected in the Iraqi field. The most consequential factor that supports Prime Minister Sudani, who is in his first months in office, is the Iran-backed “Coordination Framework”. Thus, Sudani is expected to pursue a policy in line with Iran's interests. Another indication that Sudani will adopt policies compatible with Iran and China is the presence of a formation called the "Popular Movement for the Silk Road" among many political elements that support him. This group supports closer economic ties with China. The main issue that disturbs France regarding this is the fact that Iran acts almost as a proxy force in Iraq on behalf of China, which France sees as a rival, and thus, it prevents European investors, especially France, from entering Iraq. That is why France wants Iran to resolve its problems with the international community as soon as possible and expects Iran to get rid of its economic dependence on China.
In this context, the foreign ministers of France and Iran met in Jordan. After the suspicious death of Mahsa Amini in custody, European countries, specifically France, have made many statements regarding the human rights violations in Iran and imposed sanctions against the country, especially in the last three months. These developments have caused discomfort on the Iranian side, and it paved the way for a tense atmosphere in the meeting, as expected. In his post on Twitter, the Iranian Foreign Minister stated that he considers France's interference in Iran’s internal affairs unacceptable, and France should reconsider its position against Iran, but despite everything, Iran prefers the path of dialogue and diplomacy.
The most important meeting in this context took place between the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell and the Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian. While Borrell told the Iranian Foreign Minister that Tehran must immediately cease its military support to Russia and its crackdown on protesters within the country, he also left the door open for the revival of the Nuclear Deal on the basis of nuclear negotiations.
Lastly, on the axis of the meeting in Jordan, Iran and Saudi Arabia took an important step for their relations, which is critical for peace in the region. The talks between the mid-level diplomats started on April 2021 to repair the relations between the two countries, which were interrupted in 2016. However, these talks were also interrupted for a while after the fifth round. In this context, the first high-level meeting between the two countries since 2016 took place between the foreign ministers in Jordan. In a tweet he wrote in Arabic regarding the meeting, Abdollahian said that the Saudi Minister assured him that his country was ready to resume dialogue with Iran.
The main motivation for this conference was that France considers China a global competitor and attaches great importance to Iraq in terms of balancing this country. However, the most important shortcoming of this meeting was the absence of Türkiye, which gave a message to France by not participating at a high level. Because, France has been developing discourses against the operations against PKK bases in Iraq and Syria, which are important for Türkiye's fight against terrorism. Lastly, the statements of the French authorities, that they could impose sanctions on the country due to the operations, caused discomfort in Türkiye. Therefore, the main reason why Türkiye did not participate at a high level in the meeting led by France is related to this situation. On the other hand, the high-level meeting between Iran and Saudi Arabia at the meeting is a positive development in terms of regional balances. It has shown once again that it is of vital importance to resolve the problems between neighboring countries in order to ensure a lasting peaceful environment and economic and political stability in Iraq. Likewise, the talks between Iranian and European officials showed once again that the parties still attach great importance to the revival of the Nuclear Deal and how critical it is to control the threats posed by Iran's nuclear program for regional peace.